The Healing Power of Construction Work — (The New York Times)

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The New York Times


Published: August 21, 2010

THE call came at 9:30 at night from the police detective, asking me about one of my carpenters. The detective was doing a follow-up investigation on a domestic disturbance and wanted to ask a few questions. Fine, no problem, I said ­ thinking of the big job we were in the middle of and how much I was depending on that carpenter.  

Eric Smith, a carpenter from St. Paul, finds that his line of work is welcoming to those who need second chances ­ or don’t fit the corporate mold.I had never known much about my helper’s personal life, although we considered ourselves friends. I knew that there were problems in the background, but they never came to work with him. He’d take a day off now and then for vague personal reasons, but that was all I ever heard of it, and I didn’t pry. He was quiet and hard-working. He mangled his grammar and had dropped out of high school, but he was a natural at remodeling.

He had an instinctive understanding of building and materials that can’t be taught, and I could count on him to figure out tough problems without whining or major screw-ups. He paid attention to the whole job, not just his part of it, and if I made a mistake, he’d usually catch it. He had that sweet, steady rhythm to his work that good carpenters seem born with. You can see it in the way the hands move.

I tend to hire people I like personally ­ no indicator of talent, but I have to spend a lot of time with them. I’ve discovered over the years that I’m drawn to people who have a little bit of darkness in them ­ people who have peeked over the edge, maybe even gone over it, at some point in their lives.

People with this kind of background are not uncommon in remodeling, probably because it’s one of the dwindling number of mentally challenging careers that require almost nothing in the way of qualifications except a strong back, common sense and a willingness to work hard.

For people who’ve been unable to fit into standardized corporate slots, or haven’t passed the tests or graduated at the top of their class, construction can offer a rare second or third chance.

Sitting in my van the next morning, I tried to imagine what, if anything, I might say to my helper, assuming he showed up. Among the crowd of carpenters who’ve passed through my life have been a paroled murderer, a convicted felon and several others who were familiar with jail. The murderer was one of the best people I ever worked with.

A few had gotten D.W.I.’s or had gone through drug rehab. One man ­ a charming, gap-toothed roofer with a weakness for bar fights ­ had worn a clunky ankle monitor to work for two months. I heard stories of spectacular, alcohol-fueled fights ending with clothes thrown out windows, calls to the police and court dates; often there were new phone numbers for a week or two. On some Mondays, I could almost hear the sighs of relief to be back at work, away from personal lives gone haywire.

My own history has also been somewhat irregular, and at times I’ve been a cause of concern for loved ones. I know what failure and shame are. To corporate H.R. departments, my résumé is full of red flags: false starts in unrelated fields, all quickly abandoned; unexplainable gaps (what happened to 1997 and 2002?); and jobs like that of New York cab driver that could have been adventurous and intriguing except that they lasted way too long.

I went into construction in part because I wasn’t much good at anything else I’d tried. I started at the bottom, doing dirty, menial jobs and not always doing them right.

At first, it was hard to shake feelings of humiliation, hard not to compare my status with that of the professionals and executives I worked for. But then I began to notice how much I could express just by cutting and pounding wood. A few years later, with a respectable body of work under my belt, I finally understood that the ability to imagine and then build where nothing had existed before was an ability worth valuing.

MY helper’s difficulties were eventually resolved. When he came in ­ on time ­ we had one of those awkward talks where two large guys open up to each other for a few moments. His live-in girlfriend had impulsively gone off her antidepressants, and trouble had quickly followed. After a mandatory, 72-hour, no-contact period, everything settled down. I gave him a few days off to work it out, then presented him with some difficult framing problems as a distraction.

Unfortunately, the underlying problems in the relationship were too big, and they broke up soon after. But our job, a complicated master bedroom suite in the attic of a rambling old Victorian, turned out well, with all the technical and aesthetic loose ends resolved and woven together into a completed, satisfying ending.

Hard physical labor with a clear-cut point to it can be a lifesaver.